Stodghill Says So

An opinionated posting on a variety of subjects by a former newspaper reporter and columnist whose daily column was named best in Indiana by UPI. The Blog title is that used in his high school sports predictions for the Muncie Evening Press.

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Location: Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, United States

At the age of 18 I was a 4th Infantry Division rifleman in the invasion of Normandy, then later was called back for the Korean War. Put in a couple of years as a Pinkerton detective. Much of my life was spent as a newspaper reporter, sports writer and daily columnist. Published three books on high school sports in Ohio and Indiana. I write mystery fiction for Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and others. Three books, Normandy 1944 - A Young Rifleman's War, The Hoosier Hot Shots, and From Devout Catholic to Communist Agitator are now available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other booksellers. So are four collections of short mysteries: Jack Eddy Stories Volumes 1 and 2, Midland Murders, and The Rough Old Stuff From Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine.

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Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Verdun - War On a Scale Unknown to Americans

With a slight bit of editing to bring it up to date this is a reprint of a column I wrote in 1985 during a visit to Europe. Jackie asked me to use it in a blog so here goes:

Verdun, France - If there is one sensitive bone in your body this land from the city of Verdun to the dark, nearly impenetrable Forest of the Argonne will overwhelm you. Bones - in the forbidding low white ossuary on the high ground outside Verdun you look through small windows at ground level and see the bones of 150,000 unidentified men who died when the French saw the horde of approaching Germans and decreed: They Shall Not Pass. They didn't, but they kept trying.
Skulls are visible through one of those low windows, 150,000 of them. Other windows reveal the bones from arms, legs, ribs and all the places where bones are found in a human body. French bones and German bones. How could one be distinguished from the other once the uniforms of horizon blue and field gray were stripped away?
And outside that ugly resting place for bones stand long rows of white crosses that seem to go on forever. There lie the French dead that could be identified. Red roses bloom around each cross creating a pastoral scene, but only yards away the ground is pitted and pockmarked by shells that fell all those years ago. Now only scrub pines and weeds will grow in ground forever contaminated by metal and chlorine and mustard gas.
That would bother American farmers as much as anything else, those thousands of acres destroyed, utterly ruined by man's inhumanity. It is a cratered lunar landscape, a place where more than 900,000 men died in a stretch of ground only a few miles wide.
Just north of the ossuary is a trench where Frenchmen waited with bayonets fixed for the order to go "over the top." A massive artillery barrage fell upon them before the order could be given and now the rusted bayonets and rifle barrels still point skyward, the men who held them buried under the deluge of earth. A red rose rests beside each protruding bayonet.
South of the ossuary in a shell-torn area where no foot of ground escaped the interminable shelling is a monument pointing out that "Here stood Fleury." It was erected by the citizens of the little town who had fled but could never return to the poisoned ground where their homes had once been. Signs warn that straying from the marked path means "Danger of Death."
On a back road north of Verdun we came upon a hillside cemetery where the crosses are black. Two men are buried under each. Atto Apelt was a reservist, but not far enough in reserve to avoid the same fate as Paul Shafer and the other German riflemen of 18 and 19 who died in that horrific battle. After all these years fresh flowers lie in front of some black crosses, a few words written on cards attached to them. That cemetery, shielded from the road by high hedges so that Frenchmen don't have to see the hated symbols when passing, was for some indefinable reason the most peaceful of the countless burial grounds we have seen.
Yes, this was war as Americans have yet to see it. Americans who mistakenly believe the French won't fight have never been to Verdun or the Chemin des Dames or all the other places where they fought so well in that Great War and lost an entire generation of men in doing so. They have never heard those words "They Shall Not Pass." They have never seen the cemeteries that are everywhere in this land that is so beautiful, yet so bloody. When you pause beside a plot of crosses, be they white or black, it seems that somewhere in the distance a bell is always tolling. And before you leave, no matter how brief your stay, fighter planes swoop down on a practice air strike, reminding you that nothing has changed. Reminding you that the clock is ticking, that it's waiting to happen all over again.


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